Putting real juice back into the juice box

Carlson Orchards

by Tony Rosenfeld

Carlson Orchards

Elizabeth Cecil

There are 2,182 apple orchards in the United States. Over 50 of them are within a 50 mile radius of Vineyard Haven.  

The bumpy ride through the hills of Harvard to Carlson Orchards is lined with big barns and rolling pastures. Overlook the odd passing car or the drooping utility lines and the quaint scene can take you back to the days when Walter and Eleanor Carlson started the orchard on 25 acres almost 80 years ago.

This time warp is snapped at the farm’s entrance, though, where an acre of solar panels peeks out above neat rows of apple trees. This convergence of technology and tradition at the farm’s facade is fitting. The panels, a recently completed million dollar project, will help the farm meet much of its energy demands in the coming years and is one of a handful of instances in which Carlson has mixed an old-fashioned New England ethos with cutting edge modern farming.

Packing their homemade cider into juice boxes for school lunches is another one of these bold leaps. Cider is Carlson’s main product. Though they are the largest producer in New England and use all shiny, stainless steel machinery, not much has changed in Carlson’s actual milling process since the days of Walter and Eleanor. They still use their own special blend of apples, crush them into a fine mash, and then press the pulp into rich cider. As if to prove this point, it’s just the next generation that’s running the farm. Frank, the eldest of the Carlsons’ three sons and the orchard’s general manager, came up with the idea for the juice box from his work with a Massachusetts Farm to School program, a group whose primary goal is to link local growers with area school kitchens. After some additional prodding from other members of the program, Frank started to look into the possibility of shrinking cider from its traditional jug to a single serving for school kids.

It was uncharted territory. School lunches have become the most fervent front in the national battle against obesity, a very public setting for establishing young Americans’ eating habits for better or worse. In this debate, the juice box, generally holding little actual juice and a lot of cheap sugar substitutes, has become a symbol of what’s wrong. Fresh local cider would put the juice back into the juice box, Bruce thought, and meet the pack’s true promise of healthfulness.

Of course, it wasn’t just as simple as pouring the juice into small containers and sealing. State dietary guidelines mandate that juice boxes served at school lunches be no larger than 4.3 ounces. This size was not standard for the industry so Frank started an exhaustive search for a packing company that could do the job which ultimately led to a small plant in the Midwest. Carlson loaded a tanker truck with 5,500 gallons of cider and sent it west. A few weeks later, the tiny boxes came back to Massachusetts, ready for area schools.

In its first year of sales, the response to the juice boxes has been great, though Carlson has had to work at it. Limited school budgets can make their cider boxes, which are pricier than most, a tougher sell. The upside of Frank’s dream, though, is that scores of schools across the state are now serving a high end cider to go with the rest of the cafeteria lunch fare. It’s the sort of little step that will keep old-fashioned farming and eating, alive and healthy for the next generations.